Growing plants on other planets

Hydroponics
As long as they are big enough, I think that these plant systems could produce sufficient levels of oxygen for human survival. When you think about it, this is the same as what is happening on Earth, only on a much smaller scale.
Dr Wieger Wamelink
It’s horticulture, Jim, but not as we know it. Next week, Dutch researchers will begin an investigation into whether or not it is possible to grow plants on other planets. Whilst the initial phase of the project will focus on the feasibility of cultivating food in lunar soil, one of its longer-term objectives is to find out whether the Martian terrain is capable of supporting a permanent human presence.

Dr Wieger Wamelink, an ecologist based at Wageningen University and Research Centre’s Alterra Research Institute, will use artificial lunar and Martian soils provided by NASA to identify plants with the potential to be cultivated in extraterrestrial environments. If the goal of establishing a permanent human presence on celestial bodies such as the moon and Mars is to be realised, food will need to be produced on site. To this end, Dr Wamelink and his colleagues plan to analyse 25 abiotic preconditions per species in order to identify the plant types that have the best chance of thriving on other planets.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Dr Wamelink revealed more about this exciting horticultural experiment. He began by outlining how the mineral compositions of lunar and Martian soils differ from those found on Earth.

"It might surprise you to learn that the differences are not actually that pronounced," he explained. "As you know, we will not be using genuine extraterrestrial soils. However, our test soils have been produced by NASA to simulate the types that are found on the moon and Mars. Their basic constituents are similar to those found on Earth: silicon dioxide, aluminium oxide, iron oxide and magnesium oxide. In theory, therefore, it should be possible to find plants capable of growing under these conditions. However, I am a little concerned about the levels of aluminium oxide and chromium oxide in these soils. Many plant species are incapable of withstanding these substances; their toxicity could pose a major problem."

Essentially, the ecologists intend to identify hardy plant species capable of growing in inhospitable environments. Wherever possible, these species should also be capable of providing nourishment for humans. Dr Wamelink and his colleagues will be working with 14 species including carrots, tomatoes and cress. The team will also explore the possibility of growing plants such as stinging nettles: ones which possess both nutritional value and the ability to grow in nutrient-poor circumstances.

"We would like to investigate nitrogen-binding plants such as clover and lupin species," said Dr Wamelink. "These plants can take nitrogen from the air and use it as a nutrient. This could help to overcome one of the most challenging obstacles associated with extraterrestrial plant growth: the dearth of available nutrients in the soil."

I went on to ask about the tests that the scientists will be using to identify the best candidate plants for extraterrestrial growth.

"Firstly, we are going to find out whether or not the plants germinate," Dr Wamelink replied. "This is obviously an important step, and it can be performed visually. We will then continue running our experiment for three months to see which species grow and which die. At the end of our investigation, we will harvest the surviving species, dry them and weigh the resultant produce. This will enable us to identify the plants most likely to offer the good yields in lunar and Martian environments."

Dr Wamelink and his colleagues will also compare plant growth in artificial soils with that of identical species cultivated on Earth. The research is based on the premise that an atmosphere and water will be available to the human colonies. For example, domes or buildings could be built to house the plants, and water could be sourced locally or even transported from Earth.

The scientists theorise that the plants might even generate their own ecosystem by recycling carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. To conclude our conversation, therefore, I asked whether or not extraterrestrial plant installations might one day be capable of providing sufficient levels of oxygen to sustain human life.

"Yes, this situation might be achievable," answered Dr Wamelink. "As long as they are big enough, I think that these plant systems could produce sufficient levels of oxygen for human survival. When you think about it, this is the same as what is happening on Earth, only on a much smaller scale. A lunar or Martian colony would contain fewer people – fewer consumers of oxygen and fewer producers of carbon dioxide – so it would require fewer plants. There have already been attempts to replicate such a system on Earth but unfortunately, they have only been partially successful. However, the creation of a self-contained ecosystem is certainly possible in principle. Of course, there are still many questions to be answered."

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